This article is the third part of a series of posts exploring trauma and relationships. Previously, we have discussed what trauma is and how it can steal opportunities to learn skills important to the development of mutually fulfilling relationships. In this post, we shift our focus from what was never learned, to what was learned. When we experience trauma in the absence of healing, we learn that life brings little more than betrayal, devastation, and loss. We learn that we cannot trust everyone around us, and oftentimes, we cannot trust ourselves. These lessons are not just beliefs we hold in our minds, but responses we carry in our body and wounds we feel in our spirit. This article is going to explore what “triggers” are and how they can impact relational functioning as well as the way traumatic events can shape the way we view other people and ourselves.
Many people have heard of or read about “triggers,” but may not be fully aware of what this concept means. During a traumatic event, our bodies respond by activating our nervous system and shifting into survival mode resulting in a cascade of physiological changes (Kozlowska, Walker, McLean, & Carrive, 2015). Some of these changes are taking place in the brain and alter the way memories are processed and stored. Traumatic memories are often fragmented and rich with sensory information (Brewin, 2005). A person may remember flashbulb images of the event, they may remember how they felt in that moment, they may remember smells, facial expressions, tones of voice, the external scenery, and many other components. Sometimes these memories contain many different aspects of this sensory information and sometimes a person may remember only a piece of the memory. For example, a trauma survivor may suddenly feel intense fear, but be uncertain why they are responding with such intensity to the current situation. In this case, the brain has found similarities between the traumatic event and the current situation and linked the fear experienced during the trauma to the current situation. Since only the emotional component of the traumatic memory was stored and not the context (e.g. time, place, situation), the trauma survivor is unable to differentiate that the current feelings of fear may be a memory of the emotions they experienced during the trauma. This is the result of an altered memory storage process and can contribute to survivors believing that they are unpredictable or too sensitive. Oftentimes during a triggering moment, survivors feel as if what they are remembering from the past is actually occurring in the present.
Let’s look at another example to further highlight this concept. Avery grew up with a parent who would always say something kind before shifting into a rage and hitting them. As an adult, Avery struggles with severe anxiety in their social relationships and tends to spend most of their time alone or with acquaintances. Whenever people are nice to them, they feel a sinking sense of dread in their stomach, become nauseous, and start to feel like they are in a daze. Although we can easily see how someone being kind to them is similar to how their parent treated them, Avery never thinks of those past childhood moments and instead comes to view themself as someone who can’t be around others without feeling “off.” In these social moments, Avery’s memories of how they felt (afraid, nauseous, and disconnected) are re-experienced but the full memory is not. Avery may feel ashamed of how they responded and decide not to see the person again. People who are trying to build a relationship with Avery may think that they are not interested in a friendship and stop reaching out to make plans. In this way, Avery and those around them may come to view the fault as something wrong with Avery rather than a result of trauma.
A trigger is something that activates our memory networks of trauma, but many times people may not be aware that they are experiencing a memory. Even if a survivor can identify that their trauma has been activated, they may not know how to shift out of the trauma state or may rely on strategies that were helpful during the trauma but are not helpful in the present moment. For those who struggle to shift out of a trauma state, they may view themselves as incapable of dealing with their emotions and believe that they are at the mercy of their emotions. For those who are relying on old coping responses, they may struggle to learn and implement new ways of responding.
All humans learn about themselves, others, and the world around them through relationships with others. If we grow up in a society that treats us as dignified human beings, with caregivers who provide unconditional love, and social relationships that do not significantly betray our trust or safety, we learn that we are indeed worthy of love, respect, and belonging. If these things are absent, we may question whether we are “good enough” to be loved or whether we have worked hard enough to be worthy to society. It is extraordinarily hard to love oneself when one has never received genuine love from another. Trauma survivors may learn that other people are dangerous and that it is risky to put trust in other people or get close to them. Some survivors may have learned that people only offer kindness when they want something in return. Some may have learned that when you tell people information about yourself, they use it to hurt or humiliate you. Some may have learned that the best way to avoid the pain that relationships can bring is to avoid them. For others, relationships are only safe when they can maintain total control over them.
If something can be learned, it also can be unlearned or replaced with new information. If this kind of learning was as simple as reading, we would all know exactly how to love ourselves, how to love others, and how to love the earth. As you may have guessed at this stage of the blog series, we learn through experience and through relationship. While it can be helpful to practice loving oneself, this process can be enhanced by paying special attention for moments when other people treat us with compassion and understanding. We can notice that moment when we told a friend something vulnerable and they treated the information with the care it deserves. Pay special attention to how it feels when a genuine compliment is offered, especially when the compliment helps you recognize something utterly wonderful and unique to you as a person. That feeling of relief when someone holds themself accountable for a hurtful comment they made – imagine slowing time down and savoring every sweet second of the experience. When we have lived through periods of pain, chaos, and betrayal and learned to look for signs that these things are on the horizon, we need to be purposeful in noticing the moments that something is different than expected. Everyone does not have access to safe people or environments, but for those that do, little day-to-day moments can help you learn what it feels like to be safe and treated with dignity. Especially for those who don’t have consistent access to healing relational experiences, working with a therapist who uses interpersonal or psychodynamic approaches can be particularly helpful. In the next article of this blog series, we will discuss therapeutic treatment approaches to assist in healing the wounds trauma creates.
Brewin, C. R. (2005). Encoding and retrieval of traumatic memories. In J. J. Vasterling and C. R. Brown, eds. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives (pp. 131-150). New York: The Guilford Press.
Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management. Harvard review of psychiatry.